The Down & Out is the kind of bar where everybody knows Richie the Barber’s name. Then again, it’s hard not to, considering it’s scrawled in white capital letters on the back of his black tailcoat tuxedo jacket, which looks more suited to a circus ringmaster rather than a groom at a wedding. He’s paired it with a red bowtie and a miniature black top hat that rests — somewhat implausibly, if not for the elastic chin strap — at the peak of his shaved skull, plumes of electric red hair shooting out from either direction beneath it.
The look, which resembles that of Pennywise from Stephen King’s It, has become Richie the Barber’s trademark over the last several years. During that time, he’s built a persona on being a serial prankster (he’s confetti-bombed celebrities including Jennifer Lopez and Khloe and Kourtney Kardashian, who in turn filed a battery report against him); an America’s Got Talent contestant (judge Simon Cowell called Richie’s singing and juggling act the worst thing he’s ever seen); and a star of circus sideshows like the Venice Beach Freakshow and Beacher’s Madhouse, both of which have since ceased operation.
More recently, Richie the Barber has also published a new memoir called My Crazy Women. The release party is being held on a Thursday night at the Down & Out, the downtown L.A. bar located catty-corner from Bolt Barbers, where Richie cuts hair; he’s become a local legend at both establishments. When I show up to the bar around 9 p.m. to meet the tattooed clown turned Instagram pseudo-celebrity, his friends all wish me luck and warn me that he’ll be tough to track down. It’s not that he’s elusive, they say — the red hair and tattoos are hard to miss — but that he rarely sits still for longer than a moment or two.
Trevor Penna, the documentarian who follows him around with a camera and records his every move for a yet-to-be-released movie Richie claims will someday appear on Netflix, told me, “Richie’s kind of like a magnet for chaos.” If his book release party is any indication, Penna is right: When he’s not being mobbed by strangers to pose for selfies — during which he honks the clown horn fastened to his waistband and smiles maniacally into the camera, a crazed look in his eyes — he’s running around the bar chasing people with confetti, which he always keeps in his pocket for surprise attacks.
Chaos inevitably ensues, and Richie’s entourage is always there to encourage it, occasionally documenting it through social media, which serves to promote Richie’s brand and affiliated merchandise. (He sells everything from t-shirts and hats to swimsuits and phone cases with his face on them.) One of his newer collaborators, Aaron Groome, like many of the people at this party, first met Richie here at the Down & Out. After Richie found out he was a writer, he seized on the opportunity, propositioning Groome to pen a first-person account of his tumultuous dating life.
“I hadn’t known him for that long at this time so I look over and was like, ‘Okay, tell me a story,’” Groome says. Richie launched into a retelling of the night he discovered his date giving an unnamed porn star a hand job in the kitchen of a Hollywood Boulevard bar, only to befriend him shortly after. (As proof, Groome offered up a selfie that Richie took with the well-known porn star.) “After that story, I’m dead silent. I’m just sitting there sipping my beer, I put it down, and I said, ‘I’ll be in your shop tomorrow and you will be telling me a full story and I will translate it to paper,” says Groome.
That story now appears, in Groome’s own words, in My Crazy Women, along with about 10 other sex- and booze-filled stories that he and Richie say are all true. In one, Richie gets robbed by a woman who comes home with him — she even orchestrates a moving van to empty out his apartment. In another, a fan from Instagram arrives unannounced at his barbershop one day and decides she’s going to live with him indefinitely.
But the stories aren’t all of Richie being taken advantage of. In most of them, he’s a willing participant, and often the instigator in a series of badly judged situations that, as Groome puts it, “all tend to end the same way: with an awkward hookup that didn’t go quite as planned.” In one story, he accepts a plane ticket to visit a woman he met on the internet, only to be confronted by her rifle-carrying father, who wants to know when Richie plans to pop the question. In another, Richie resorts to firing up a chainsaw as an intimidation tactic after his date’s husband comes banging on the door. In his defense, he claims, he didn’t know she was married. The theme throughout each of the stories, it seems, is Richie’s drunkenness.
Does he see his drinking as a problem? I ask him this question after finally having wrangled him outside on the bar’s smoke-filled patio, a cadre of fans, friends and admiring passersby constantly interjecting. “Are you being mean?” Richie asks, which then prompts him to burst into laughter as if the question were hilarious. “Probably, yeah,” he eventually mumbles. He’s drunk now, too, he says, a bottle of whiskey poking out from inside his vest pocket, though he’s quick to argue that he’s never been drunk while on the clock cutting hair.
He learned the craft at the age of 13 from his grandfather, a barber who introduced him to the circus and sparked his obsession with clowns, and it might be the only thing he still takes seriously today. His loyal clients — like Ralph Rivas, who says he’s been going to Richie the Barber for more than two years and hasn’t allowed anyone else to cut his hair since — can attest to that. “Maybe the fact that clowns always trick people out, scare some people, drew me into it,” says Rivas, who wears a t-shirt printed with the slogan Richie the Barber is a friend of mine. “Crazy thing about Richie is that he’s a clown the first 10, 15 minutes. But when you actually get in conversation with him, it goes away.”
At 31, Richie the Barber (real name: Richie Esposito) has committed to his clown act to the extent that he’s inked his entire face with permanent blue clown makeup, with his eyes, nose and lips filled in red like Ronald McDonald’s. He’s also had his tongue split like a reptile’s, and silicone arches implanted over each eye to give the illusion of a constant look of awe on his face. “Do you want to touch them?” he asks me. They feel soft, like fluid-filled blisters. “You can touch them more,” he says. I tell him I’m good.
It’s almost 10:30, and Richie is being herded back inside the bar to watch his opening act, a punk band called Pu$$y Cow, whose lead singer gradually takes off his pants over the course of the set to reveal tiger-print briefs underneath. Richie juggles pins alongside the band in between throwing confetti and paper streamers and bonking members of the band and the audience over the head with an oversized, cartoon-like gavel.
The chaos continues into Groome and Richie’s headlining act, which is less a reading and more of a drunken storytelling set, with Richie miming several sex scenes in graphic detail while his mom watches from the audience with a look of simultaneous embarrassment and pride. When Richie’s stories get too long winded or off-topic, Groome, acting as both a hype man for the audience and an emcee turned babysitter for Richie, tries to rein him back in with leading questions like, “Didn’t you date a clown?” and “What’d you do, dude?” Richie then snaps back into his stories, which all differ slightly from Groome’s written version.
“Holy shit, I’m about to fuck a clown!” he says in his retelling of one story, squeezing his rubber horn. “She has a horn, I have a horn. I’m trying to juggle but I can’t because I’m so fucked up.”
After the performance, I find Richie’s mom, Jean, on the bar’s patio and ask her what she thinks of the book. “I love it,” she says.
But not everyone is a fan of My Crazy Women. “It’s a total misogynistic piece of shit,” says Aryn Stewart, a friend of Richie’s. “It’s very much a male perspective. There’s not a single female perspective in the whole book.” She adds, “He’s a tattooed clown living in L.A. He’s got stories.”
By now, the floor of the bar is covered in paper streamers and multi-colored confetti. Richie has turned the Down & Out into his own personal circus, and none of the regulars here are particularly fazed by it. It’s almost midnight, but something tells me the night is just getting started for Richie the Barber, the tattooed clown who has become a master at turning his drunken escapades into marketable content.
Besides, he’s still got to generate material for his next book in the series, a collection of drinking stories tentatively titled Richie the Bar Crawl. He and Groome are already working on it.